A Rose Between Two Thorns

Easter Weekend Trip - Friday 10th to Monday 13th April 2009

Foray into the Tararua Ranges

Having failed in four previous attempts to complete the Three Kings due to ghastly weather, I was particularly keen to succeed this time. Three Kings is on the very rugged north eastern side of the Tararuas. Not only were we crazy enough to contemplate this difficult trip but, even more recklessly, we added in the Northern Crossing, west to east.

Brent (and I) had completed the 100-km Oxfam Trailwalk the weekend before, and he had gruesome blisters on his heels which looked like precluding his participation this weekend - but Max and I were surprised at his last-minute decision to join us. (Our good charm? Or his foolhardiness?)

An uneventful trip down to Levin on Thursday night allowed an early start on Friday morning. To our amazement, there was heavy snow on the upper ranges - so off we went briskly up the Ohau River, not even giving Brent the chance to take the odd GPS reading (but he affirms that cold water and colder snow is sweet oblivion for tender, blistered feet). The river was knee deep at best, with no deep pools to traverse this time. We arrived at the new South Ohau Hut in good time for a snack and to begin our assault of the rather steep Yeats 500 up to Te Matawai Hut where a quick lunch was somewhat thwarted by Brent’s skill at how not to pack a pack. With contents spread everywhere and most needed items at the bottom, he had apparently taken lessons from Malcolm.

Finally away and still in very good time climbing to Pukematawai. Me in front, Brent in the middle, and Max tail-end Charlie - our standard travelling order for the trip.

We hit the fresh snow near the top, and our good pace crumbled as we approached Arete, as did the possibility of pushing on to Tarn Ridge Hut that day. With the weather clagging in somewhat and with dwindling visibility, we were, instead, delighted to see (the new) two-bed Arete Bivvy, despite it being already occupied by a hunter and his dog. Max and I topped-’n tailed while Brent happily took the floor space under the bench top. The subsequent arrival of two more trampers who tented outside but cooked inside meant things were rather cosy to say the least! We all survived, although the freeze-dried meal supplied by Brent of beef curry (good) and rice (rancid, smelling of plastic and petrol) left a somewhat unpleasant after-taste. That’ll be a letter to Back Country Cuisine!

A still evening with eerily-glowing moon was followed by strong winds and low cloud the next day - prompting the Tararua Trampers Test: can you see the back of the person in front of you? Yes!! Has the wind picked you up and dumped you down? No!! OK - suitable to continue, so we did.

The Waiohine Pinnacles were not too bad, although posed a bigger challenge for me in the company of my longer-legged companions. The spectacular views were unfortunately veiled in white all day, but the snow was beginning to melt.

Reaching Tarn Ridge Hut for lunch, we encountered a party of hut-bound hunters who, despite extensive, choppered-in supplies, were eager to swap beer and apples for some humble tea bags! We obliged, much to their delight. On to Girdlestone, then Three Kings bound for Mid King Bivvy. Brent was finally able to use his GPS to provide some reassurance in the much more rugged terrain with wind and poor visibility challenging our navigation a little.

A horrible, rough descent off the tops down to Mid King Bivvy on the bush line took over an hour, but thankfully we had the lovely orange ‘dog box’ to ourselves - just enough room for three with Max’s snores reverberating around the humble interior. We were quite reconciled to the return ascent, but all agreed that, in better weather, camping on the tops would have been a more attractive proposition.The Trio at the 5-star luxury Mid King Bivvy

And better weather it was for this third day - even quite pleasant, with sun and not much wind! Spotting an orange blob well down a spur, I declared it to be the location of McGregor Bivvy, although wondered at how close it seemed. When the bivvy began to move, however, a quick reassessment favoured ‘brightly attired hunter’… and we finally spotted the real Bivvy, further away, but much more accessible than Mid King Bivvy.

Three Kings Ridge is undulating and steep terrain, slippery, rocky and unstable with the piece de resistance being Broken Axe Pinnacles: a dramatically steep, slick ascent deprived of grass, vegetation, and handholds by previous trampers over the years. Our heart-felt trepidation at this most dangerous ascent was, however, assuaged by DOC having declared it too dangerous and routing a somewhat safer detour around the base of the Pinnacles. Brent gratefully declined the invitation, as the newcomer, to proceed via the old path.

Having made good time, and with the snow mostly gone, we dropped our packs at Shingle Slip Knob and descended from the tops again to visit the site of a crashed Devon (1955) and the graves of the two pilots. This diversion was actually more difficult than I recalled, starting with a fairly steep rocky drop and requiring some ‘tussock scrub wading’ along the way - but an historical site worth a visit, nonetheless. We returned to retrieve our packs and make our way to Jumbo Hut before dark (just!).
Jumbo Hut, with gas cooking, head room and space to stretch out was sheer luxury. Clearing skies gave way to spectacular views of the Wairarapa Plains, townships and distant hills.

So guess why Brent had such trouble keeping his pack weight under 18kg as recommended (and failed) on this, his second ever ‘overnighter’?? Turns out, despite clear instructions about shared meals, he had food for another three days, and enough extra clothing for two trampers! In his defence, he claims that had tramping between two potentially antagonistic thorns become too intolerable, he could have made an independent bid for freedom and not gone hungry. As it happens, when the Rose did inadvertently step out of middle tramping order for a while, thereby allowing the thorns to engage in a ‘lively discussion’ about optimal routes, it quickly became apparent that ‘middle order’ was best for the harmony of the party at large!

The final day saw us descending Rain Gauge Spur to Holdsworth Hut where my daughter picked us up for the trip back round to Paraparaumu for a day’s rest and cleanup (and work on my farmlet). Everyone in fine form, happy, with no extra blisters or sore legs! An especially soothing trip for the two thorns, and a wonderful new experience for the Rose.

We were: Thorns Carol Exton (scribe) and Max Clark, and Brent Rose